CHARLOTTE – Grief is about the only thing an Alabama football player has ever given to an Auburn football player, but former Crimson Tide safety Robert Lester was in a giving mood Sunday.
"I challenged Lester before the game, setting our differences aside," former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton said. "I told him, 'I'm expecting big things from you.' He said, 'You know what, I'm going to get an interception, and when I get an interception, I'm going to bring it to you.'
"Lo and behold, he got an interception, and what did he do? He brought the ball right to me."
For Lester and rookie cornerback Melvin White, who both made their NFL debuts in the Panthers' 38-0 drubbing of the New York Giants, there were plenty of souvenir balls to go around.
Lester corralled another football on a fumble recovery, an opportunity set up by White jarring the ball loose. White got a ball as well, picking off a pass of his own.
It wasn't a likely scenario in the minds of many observers who thought Giants quarterback Eli Manning would feast on a pair of rookies playing key roles in the secondary rather than the other way around.
Lester, however, saw it coming.
"We took the game plan and ran with it," Lester said. "Those are my expectations. I'm coming from Alabama where I'm used to getting four or five shutouts a year. I want this to be the first of many more. When we play Arizona, that's our goal."
Lester's pedigree is impressive. He won threee national championships in four years at Alabama, missing out only when Newton led archrival Auburn to the title in 2010. In his time with the Crimson Tide, Lester picked off 14 passes.
"You look for winners, for guys that have a history of winning in their background," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "We were interested in him even prior to the free agent part of the draft."
It was a surprise to many - and certainly to Lester – that he wasn't drafted. That's part of what is driving him so far.
"Anytime I'm on the field, I'm out to prove that I belong here and that I'm out there to make plays and be a threat in this league," Lester said.
White has always felt like he had something to prove. Lightly recruited out of high school and asked by Louisiana Lafayette to switch from quarterback to cornerback, White has displayed a quiet confidence so far with the Panthers.
"Since Day One I came to work every day like I was a No. 1 (cornerback), so it really wasn't different being out there with the first group," White said. "That's been my mindset."
McDermott credited the Panthers' college scouting department for identifying White as well as Lester, then credited the Panthers' position coaches for so quickly getting them up to speed.
White, like Lester, also drew a bit of inspiration from one of the Panthers' offensive stars.
"For the last couple of weeks I had been calling him 'cement feet' just to get him to open up his feet," wide receiver Steve Smith said Sunday. "Today, I walked past him and called him 'quick feet.'
"He read the offense and got the pick. That was a great job for a young guy. It shows he's getting it in film and bringing it to the field."
It's difficult to predict what roles White and Lester will have when the Panthers next take the field on Oct. 6 at Arizona. They were thrust into action because of a bevy of injuries in the secondary, some of which could heal during the bye week.
Regardless of what happens, the coaching staff now knows it has two more players it can trust.
"You never know," Lester said. "We have great talent here. I trust that the coaches are going to play the right guys. Whoever that may be, I wish them the best of luck. If it's me, I'm going to go out there and play ball."